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3 Keys to Building an Ethical Culture

July 9, 2019 | Shannon Shoemaker

In the wake of corporate scandals, many consumers have concerns regarding trust. In fact, a 2017 survey found that only 52 percent of respondents trust big business.

So what tactics can HR employ to build trust — not just with the public, but within the company culture?

“It is essential to adopt ethics as part of corporate conversation, whether it’s in a leadership meeting or brainstorming about a new product,” says Patti Perez, Vice President of Workplace Strategies and author of The Drama-Free Workplace. “Ethics must be practiced at all levels of the corporate structure.”

Here are some ways you can increase trust and do good in the world by incorporating ethics at all levels of your organization.

Define Your Values — and Stick to Them

Achieving an ethical culture starts with the simple rules we were taught as children: “Act with integrity, and do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do,” says Steven Mintz, Ethics Sage and Professor Emeritus at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. Mintz notes the importance of establishing self-transcendent values — putting the good of others before personal gain — as a polestar for any business.

But establishing these values requires saturating all aspects of the company. Consumers and employees alike should feel empowered to address concerns.

If It Doesn’t Fit Your Values, Don’t Do It

Employees often take their cues from the tone at the top — the top players in the company set the standard for behavior. “No matter how strong a company’s ethical standards, a code is less likely to be followed if employees perceive upper management as breaching it,” Mintz says. “It breeds cynicism.” In a few cases, when employees feel like they’re being mistreated and that their employers aren’t ruled by a code of ethics, they react by retaliating — maybe stealing on a small scale.

The tone at the top can set the stage for an ethical community — or snowball into mistrust. “As a ground rule, companies need to behave as if everything they say or do is going to become public knowledge,” says Alison Taylor, Managing Director at Business for Social Responsibility. Transparency at all levels is the best way to achieve and maintain trust from your employees and the public.

Set Some Ground Rules for Tech Use

Transparency and trust are becoming even more important in the age of technology and AI. Tech offers a mixed bag, so you need to establish trust company-wide. For example, as AI is used more and more in employee performance reviews, you must establish what that process will look like, and how it may change. “Leaders should work closely with employees and stakeholders to create a road map for the use of AI,” Mintz says.

One good rule of thumb is not to use tech for employee surveillance — that’s a fast track to destroying the trust you’ve established with your employees. “Surveillance culture is very problematic. Extensive employee surveillance isn’t going to make anyone feel psychologically safe or committed ethically,” Taylor says.

Don’t be intimidated by incorporating ethics into your company culture. HR teams can play a large role as intermediary between all levels of an organization. The creation of trust and transparency sets the stage for an ethical culture, and the rest will follow.

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